Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s declaration this week that he will run for a fourth term in next presidential election slated for next year was not unexpected, but it has fuelled concerns about the future of democracy in Rwanda.
President Kagame, who won the last election with 98.8 percent to earn seven years in office, is eligible for another 10 years under the constitution, which will see him serve for 40 years as president if elected.
"I am happy with the confidence that the Rwandans have shown in me. I will always serve them, as much when I can. Yes, I am, indeed, a candidate," President Kagame told Jeune Afrique magazine in an interview published on Tuesday.
When asked what he thought the West would think of him running again, he replied, “I’m sorry for the West, but what the West thinks is not my problem.”
“People are supposed to be independent and should be allowed to organise themselves as they wish,” President Kagame added.
But talk is rife that he will find it difficult to shake off the tag of clinging on to power like despots in Africa.
Phil Clark, professor of international politics at SOAS University of London told The EastAfrican that the Rwanda leader “has often contrasted himself with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, who is destined to remain president well into his 80s.”
“He will want to avoid being seen as President Museveni is today: an old man without a coherent vision for the country, still clinging on to power,” the don said.
President Kagame has been in power since 2000 and is now Rwanda’s longest-serving president after his predecessor, Juvenal Habyarimana, who reigned for 21 years from 1973 until his assassination in April 1994.
President Kagame is credited with overseeing Rwanda's economic and social transformation since the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. But he has also been criticised for his perceived authoritarian rule and suppression of dissent.
If he gets re-elected in August 2024 — as is widely expected — he will cement his position as East Africa’s second longest-serving leader after Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has been in power since 1986.
The president is finishing his last seven-year term and is expected to rule the country until 2034, when his new two five-year terms end.
Article 101 of the revised constitution says the term of office of the president is five years. He or she may be re-elected once.
However, article 172 (1) says: " The President of the Republic in office at the time of this constitution comes into force continues to serve seven years for which he was elected.”
Article 172 (2) says “the provisions of Article 101 of this Constitution take effect after a seven-year term of office of the President of the Republic referred to in Paragraph 1 of this article.”
If elected in 2024, President Kagame is eligible to serve for 10 years. Should he seek re-election after the five-year term, Kagame will be 74 years old when he finishes his fifth term.
“It's no surprise that Kagame is running for a fourth presidential term. He remains popular with the majority of Rwandans, who credit him with the country's rebuilding after the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. At a time of regional volatility, many Rwandans want him to stay for the sake of continuity and stability,” said Prof Clark.
“But the major questions will come from within the (ruling) Rwanda Patriotic Front. Are there frustrated senior members of the party who believe it's their turn at the presidency? Is it time for fresh thinking at the top? President Kagame himself has spoken about the need to bring younger RPF members into the fold, to keep the party modern and agile. These internal questions will re-emerge in light of Kagame running again in 2024.”
Green Party leader Frank Habineza is so far the only other candidate who has declared his intention to run for Rwanda’s top office, which will make it his second time on the ballot.
Habineza was vehemently opposed to the 2015 constitutional amendment that allowed Kagame to run for a third term. Hehas, however, conceded defeat and accepted that Kagame has a constitutional right to run for a fourth term.
“We did not support the constitutional amendment to allow President Kagame to run for a third term in 2017, but we lost our case in court, so he has a right to run for the next two terms. There is nothing illegal in that. We will fight again – democratically - if the constitution is changed again to allow him contest beyond 2034,” Mr Habineza told The EastAfrican.
In the 2017 presidential vote, he got less than one per cent of the ballots, but he is confident that he will have a better showing in 2024.
“As a party, we were not well organised in 2017, which is why I performed poorly, but we now have well organised structures across the country and we have delivered on our manifesto. In December, we will launch the Green Party’s Women’s League at the national level,” he said.
President Kagame’s fiercest critic, Victoire Ingabire, also wants to be on the 2024 presidential ballot but is barred by laws that prevent former convicts from serving in public office.
Ms Ingabire was handed a 15-year sentence for inciting divisionism and conspiring against the government and served a total of eight years until 2018, when she was released on a presidential pardon.
She told The EastAfrican that she has requested the president to remove restrictions imposed on her.
“I have written to him to remove conditions imposed on me … I am still waiting for his answer,” she said this week.
“Although the African Court for Human and People’s Rights ruled that the government of Rwanda violated my right to freedom of expression, Rwanda charged me with crimes I did not commit, and they refuse to recognise that ruling to this day. Thus, I cannot run for any elections unless I am rehabilitated. And laws allow President Kagame to do so. If he will accept to rehabilitate me I don't know.”
She added that President Kagame’s announcement to run for a fourth term came at a time of “extreme” economic distress with high levels of unemployment and food inflation.
She also says that the “consensual democracy that the ruling RPF implemented has transformed into a political system that suppresses dissent.”